The London Film School at 50

By Robert Chilcott

franc-roddam.jpgFranc Roddam

To mark its 50th year, former student and governor Franc Roddam recalls his time at the London Film School

“I came from a very small town in the North East of England. Even though I went to the cinema three times a week from the age of seven, there were two cinemas at the top of my street, I never imagined I could be part of cinema. I used to sneak in, and if it was an A picture, you could get in if accompanied by an adult, and we used to stand outside the cinema, and we’d ask an adult to take us in, and they’d say one and a half and you’d go in and separate from them, and then, because they were people you knew from the village, sometimes very occasionally some guy would be so generous that he’d pay for your ticket, and so you’d have money for sweets. So I had this love of cinema- I saw all the Cagney movies, Bogart movies, all these movies, though I never imagined that film would be available. I was a beatnik and, you know, I wanted to be a poet. And then I was travelling, I travelled a lot from a very early age, which was unusual in those days, and I was in Istanbul aged 17, and then I was in Greece and I got a job on a film- somebody said they’re looking for film extras in this small town, and I went to this small town and there was this guy called Cacoyannis, who did Zorba the Greek, and he was making a film called The Day the Fish Came Out, and I got a job as an extra, and my job was to sit in a café for six weeks, with all these beautiful girls around me. And I literally sat there, we were outnumbered by girls six to one, and they put us in little costumes and things and we just sat there. And I was watching the process going on, as an extra you’ve got a lot of spare time on your hands, and I was sitting at the table at this café seeing the AD’s work, seeing the cameras work, and suddenly I realised it was available to me. I went on to Egypt and Libya and Tunisia, did a huge journey, and while I was on that journey I started writing a film script idea, for some reason I started writing a short story. Then I met somebody in Afghanistan, and this guy asked me to deliver this letter to somebody in London. And the person I delivered the letter to was at film school, and he had a spare room. So I ended up living in the room and finding out about film school - I had my script, and there was an outlet! I’d never heard of film school. I applied, got in, and suddenly my life turned around"

quadrophenia-franc-roddam-1.jpgQuadrophenia, 1979

"1968. Film school was very exciting. A great percentage of the students were American draft dodgers avoiding the Vietnam War. You had people from South America, you had people from Africa, people from Iran- so it was a wonderful group of people all with very different ideas, and I think one of the great things about being a writer or a director or an artist of any kind is to realise how strongly you feel about your own view, but to realise it is completely different from many other views which are equally valid. Everybody’s ideas are valid to themselves, and that helps very much when you start to write the script because the antagonists values are as equally powerful as the protagonist. So I learnt a great deal by just being in the company of all these different people. And the film school itself was wonderful because, in the first term, this wonderful man called Roger Manville who was a film historian, would come in one day a week and we’d look at all the best documentaries that had ever been made, all the best features that had ever been made, English, French, Italian and so on, and I got a fantastic grounding of what cinema could be, what it could be historically and what it could be in the future. The other thing that was marvellous was that, on a kind of competitive basis, you had to pitch your ideas, working in groups of 6 or 8, and that meant one idea, one director, and the other people had to be cameramen, art directors, producers, soundmen, so you had to function like you do in the outside world, you had to sell your idea- create an idea, sell it to the other students, and then manage those people and manage the idea. And that’s the basis of directing. So I felt the system was wonderful and I had a fantastic time, made a film every term. One of the great experiences for me, in the fourth term, the beginning of the second year, even though you’d worked in groups in the past, they allowed every student to make a film of one minute long, in colour, on 16mm. So suddenly instead of having ten or fifteen movies you had sixty, and the people who didn’t have a big personality, didn’t have a lot of manipulative power, suddenly you saw who they really were, through their art, through their expression. And there was this incredible moment, there was this one guy, he did a single shot of a red flag fluttering in a blue sky, playing this revolutionary socialist song against it. The teachers were annoyed, and said he hadn’t taken advantage of the term, inferring that he’d been lazy, that he hadn’t used movement, action, different size shots, to learn the process. He was this little Iranian guy, and he stood up, looked at them contemptuously and said “You fail to understand the power of the single image” and he got up and left the room. Something for us all to think about. So the exchange of ideas was marvellous, the film history was marvellous, and also that you were living and working with so many different kinds of people from different environments. Very, very stimulating"

"I made a film in the third term, Birthday, which again was a wonderful experience. They had a big studio upstairs at that point, and in the third term you made a 35mm non-sync sound film, so you could have different units working together, four separate groups working in one studio cut into four, each allowed to build a little set, and all directing at the same time. I had a wind-up Newman Sinclair camera that I think had been used on one of the Everest expeditions in 1923. Clockwork, beautiful 35 mm. So I made Birthday, it was written by somebody else – this married couple from New Zealand. I thought they were quite pretentious, a bit worthy, but they wrote this film and asked me to direct it. It was about nuclear disarmament and birth and I thought it was overwrought and over serious. But I did it in my way, and then it was nominated for a Bafta award (it wasn’t Bafta at the time) for best short, and then it went to Berlin Film Festival as the entry for Britain for Best Short, and then Universal bought it for their university program. So at the end of the first year I suddenly found myself swimming in more glamorous waters, and we went to this after-party, John Schlesinger owned this restaurant in Covent Garden and hosted a party, and we had a Happening. Peter Finch was there, it was so fucking glamorous, and all those things made me feel more and more confident. In the fourth term I did a commercial, a one minute commercial, I thought it might get me work, and the reason I did that was because two guys from my home town, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, were both making commercials. So I made a 60 second commercial for brandy, which I wrote and directed, and my course tutor at the time was Charles Crichton, who was a fantastic editor, and he just refined the process for us"

quadrophenia-franc-roddam-2.jpgQuadrophenia, 1979

"Then like everybody else I left film school and you couldn’t work in the industry, because at that time it was a closed shop, and you needed a union ticket to work, and I couldn’t get in the union, so it was a real dilemma. Some of my contemporaries went into the BBC as Trainee Assistant Directors, which was three years of carrying cans, and then I think you might become an Assistant Director. And one of my friends who was on my course, I think it took him 15 years to become a fully fledged editor. So I said no, I’m going to go straight into directing, but in fact there was no way for me to do it. So I got a job in advertising, with an agency, as a trainee Copywriter/Assistant Producer, and that was a bit more money, a bit more fun, and another discipline, and I was writing and producing commercials - Schwepps, The Observer. Eventually I went to the BBC to get a job directing a documentary as it was the only way I could get in. I didn’t want to do documentaries, I wanted to do drama. Anyway they let me in and I made some documentaries, they won some awards, and eventually after two or three years I was allowed to do my first drama, and I did a drama called Dummy, which won the Prix Italia drama prize, and it was seen and loved by lots of people, and then I got offered Quadrophenia. So my journey was a brave one, in a way. Dummy was actually a drama doc, but I just did it as a drama. I basically got lucky. There was a guy who used to admire me at the BBC, went to work at ATV and became head of documentaries, Charles Denton, and I went to see him and he said “What do you want to do?” and I remember showing him three paragraphs from a story in the Daily Mirror about a deaf and dumb prostitute who’d killed a guy, and was sentenced to manslaughter, and he said to his assistant “What do you think of that?” and she said “Well I think it's marvellous, Charles”, and I said I wanted to do it as a drama doc, and he went OK. Then I basically checked around looking for writers, went after the guy who wrote The Naked Civil Servant, he wasn’t available, then I found this guy called Hugh Whitemore, a very successful playwright, and he agreed to do it. He and I hammered it out, and it was like making a small feature, it was the same price as a German feature film, like a Fassbinder. And it was very powerful, and when it went out 14 million people watched it, and there was a huge turn-off of TVs because it was so emotional. Then people picked up on it, like David Puttnam, Alan Parker, and when Quadrophenia came up, I think they wanted Alan Parker to do it, and he said you should try this guy".

quadrophenia-franc-roddam-3.jpgQuadrophenia, 1979

"I was Governor of the film school for about two years, and I sat in one arbitration thing with a student who they wanted to kick out. The director who was doing this short was obviously a bully, and they brought him in so they could have the portion of his fee to make the film, and then they bullied him around, intimidated him, and sent him to find a goldfish on a Sunday, and he didn’t know what to do, and he’d leant the production his car, and he was paying to work on a picture in a lowly capacity, and he was so nervous of the director who was at the school with him, that he stole a goldfish from a Chinese restaurant, and was chased all the way from Chinatown to Covent Garden, into the film school, where he was finally captured in possession of the goldfish, and he was taken to Court, and they were going to expel him from school. I had quite a strong opinion that he should be allowed to stay, but the principal wanted to kick him out. And then the next time I had a meeting there they’d voted to remove the principal. But I felt for this kid- he’d come from Switzerland, he’s Iranian, he’s having trouble with the language, he’s being bullied by more aggressive people, they're using his money and his car, and then, the poor bastard, they want to throw him out. Can you imagine the humiliation, I could tell from what he was talking about that his family would murder him, so we came to a nice compromise where we let him leave that term and come back a term later with a new set of personalities where he’d be more experienced".

"I think when you’re young, and you leave film school, you have to be a really good hustler. When I went back to the film school to do a lecture, I didn’t want to do one on Naturalism or Realism- I did one on hustling, the moves you have to make, self-promotion. At film school you get people who want to be cameramen, or art director, but nobody wanted to produce and nobody wanted to do sound, so as a director you have to be your own hustler, a lot of the time you have to be your own writer- I don’t think many people can write screenplays. When I’ve done my own work, I’ve had hits, when I’ve done other people's scripts, they haven’t really worked for me. You can’t convince people that most of the stuff you have to leave out, and some people get obsessed with genre and then they just produce pale copies of masterpieces, which drives you mad. I also think that these Orange competitions, you worry sometimes that that they make people come at it from the wrong direction. It’s a bit like Big Brother or something, like a knock out competition, Australia’s Top Models”.

Robert Chilcott is a writer and filmmaker. He lives in London.